Sunday, April 28, 2013

Law and Grace

“Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.”

Throughout the book of Romans, Paul is encouraging us not to judge.  He is primarily speaking about Gentile worthiness to come to Jesus without any hindrances, but he could be talking about homosexuals, drug dealers, prostitutes or Republicans.  He says that we are unworthy to judge sinners, because we are sinners ourselves.  He says that both the judged and the religious are saved by living out their faith in Christ.  He says that Jesus came to save his enemies, and that means sinners.

Then the question comes up, as it always does, “But if you are soft on sin, then you might as well be encouraging people to sin.”  Paul says that, to the contrary, we are unified with Christ through baptism, which gives us the power to live in Jesus, not a life of sin.  And he also says that when we are in Christ, we transfer our certificate of slavery from sin—so we were forced to commit sin—to Jesus, who gives us grace.
Paul says, though, that the real transfer is from the Law to Grace. 

“Law” is specifically the Mosaic law, but it can be any law that is not governed primarily by Love. It could be a church law, or even a national law.  It is a list of policies or rules that take God’s active place in our lives, to tell us how to live right before God.  Law is a principle that says that as long as we obey the law, then we are okay before God.

Grace, however, is the way of Jesus.  This doesn’t mean that the way of Jesus doesn’t have specifics that we should follow.  However, Jesus’ way is different.  Because Jesus is less interested in giving us rules as he is principles.  Jesus re-interpreted the law of Moses with the more basic principle “love your neighbor as yourself”, and the law looked very different, being both more encompassing, and more lenient.  The law of love takes in every action, whether big or miniscule.  But love also permits failure.

If you had known what this means: "I desire compassion and not sacrifice", you would not have condemned the innocent   (Matthew 12:7)

The law is a set list of rules.  You either obey or disobey.  If you disobey, even once, you have broken the law, and it is determined from that point on that you are a law-breaker.  The law is like pottery.  Once it is broken, it cannot be repaired.  You can put a pot back together, but the break will always be seen.

Grace is a principle we are learning to live like.  We have received grace by being forgiven by God when we were a law-breaker.  This makes us want to give grace to others, because grace produces grace.  We sometimes break grace—the principle of love—but Grace always gives us another chance to live in grace.  As long as we repent of our failures to be compassionate, to forgive, to be merciful, to help in times of need, then there will always be an opportunity to return to grace.  Grace is like flesh—you can cut it and make it bleed, but it will heal.

If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  I John 1:9

Law is a curse to all.  Once you break the law, you are a law-breaker and nothing changes that and all law-breakers are cursed.  Both the lovers of the law and the haters of the law have this in common—they are all cursed by the law, because they have all broken the law.  This curse leads to death.  All who live under the law die, because no one is able to live according to the law a hundred percent.  Those who live under the law are punished while under the law for their lapses, and they eventually die eternally.

Grace is a blessing to all.  Grace calls out to law-breakers, law-lovers and law-haters and calls them to live out the principle of love.  Grace gives a second (and third) chance to all.  Not because it loves sin, but because grace understands that walking in love and the Holy Spirit takes time, and that time is the only way to heal the wounds of judgment, and to learn to live in love.  Grace grants life to those near and to those far away, and everyone can feel the radiation of the love of Grace.

Do good and lend money expecting nothing in return and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.  (Luke 6:35)

Law produces fear and judgment.  It makes people think that people are looking at them, that God is staring down at them, waiting for them to fail, to break the law.  Those under the law feel the eyes of law everywhere and are reduced to guilt, even when there is nothing to be guilty of.  Because they feel judgment everywhere, they consider it only normal to judge others, and to consider others to be worthy of judgment.  They see others’ worth only as good as their obedience, and most everyone is, at the end, unworthy of life, only death.

Grace produces grace.  To be given a chance to make right, gives freedom to do the same to others.  The grace-full God encourages his followers to forgive, to give to those who are unworthy, to bless all, without regard to worthiness. Those living in overflowing grace find it the easiest thing in the world to allow that overflow of blessing to go to others because they have so much.  The graceful one is only more rich in grace as they give it away.  Grace multiplies when it is given away.

Law shrinks the world.  The hearts of those under the law shrivels into a hard, black rock.  The gaze of those under the law wither the worth of those around them.  Action is difficult, and the freedom to love cannot be granted.  The law must restrict love to retain control.  The successful man under Law is the one who controls and stamps out freedom.

Grace expands the world.  Grace is open to anyone, anything.  Grace invites people to live freely in love.  Grace grants full freedom to love, in any expression that is truly love.  Grace does limit actions of hate and judgment and harm, for these are not love.  But there is freedom for all else.  The successful one under Grace is the one who freely blesses and gives the most to the most people.

Whenever you stand praying, forgive whatever you have against another.  In this way your Father in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. (Mark 11:25)

To be faithful under Law is defined only by obedience to rules. Either you are true to the Law or you are a failure.

To be faithful under Grace is defined by how one appropriately loves others.  One is faithful to our God, our spouse, our friends, our enemies in different ways, but they are all based in how we can best love them with all we have and are. 

Grace isn’t a license to sin, but a freedom to love.  Law isn’t a restriction to sin, but it actually increases sin by increasing the laws that “make” sin.  To increase law is to increase sin.  To increase grace is to give freedom to live apart from sin.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Spiritual Discipline of Preaching

I don’t know that I’m a great preacher, but I’ve done it a lot, more than average, I’d say, over the last 14 years.  At times I’ve done four sermons a week.  That doesn’t make me an expert.  But I know what works for me.  The real problem with preaching is that everyone does it differently, and that’s the way it should be.  Everyone should have their own standards and ways to learn.  But there are some things that are the same for everyone.

The act of preaching
We preach not because it fills a hole in a worship service.  We preach in order to communicate what God has to say to the people in front of us.  We preach the word of God because that contains the basics of what God wants to say to those listening to us.  When we have nothing else to say, and people expect us to say something, we should always remind people what God has to say to everyone in God’s word.  But we also need to listen to God to hear what he wants to say to our people specifically. 

We need to remember that we aren’t the only people God is speaking through.  God speaks through songs, through the Word directly, through life experience, through His Spirit.  We are only one way for Him to speak.  But we need to take our speaking seriously.  We aren’t speaking for ourselves, although we are only human.  We are in God’s place.  That is a serious responsibility and we need to take it seriously.

Tips for preaching: 

1.       Find out God’s message
If we are to take God’s message to our people seriously, we need to take God’s message seriously.  We find out God’s message in these ways: a. Prayer for guidance, b. Bible analysis (to know what the text really says without our assumptions), c. Prayer for God’s emphasis (to find out which part of the text God wants to emphasize) and d. Preparing how best to communicate to our people.  We want our sermon to bring Jesus’ message to the people in front of us.  This means that we need to hear from God and find the best way to get them to hear it as well.

2.       Distill the message
Besides whatever else you want to say, find a snappy way to present it, so people can remember it.  No one remembers a half hour message.  But if you have a single line or a short list of words, then people will remember that.  Summarize your message into a way people can remember it.

3.       Don’t preach to yourself, but your audience
For those of us who preach to a different cultural group from ourselves, this is especially important, but we need to remember this with every audience.  If we are preaching to a “normal” church group, at the very least there are two sexes represented there, and we should remember them both.  We should remember the classes of our audience, the education level, the experiences and the suffering of the people in front of us.   I’ve changed my whole sermon in the last minute because I realized that something different would speak to the people in front of me instead of the people I thought would be there.  If I was speaking to myself, I’d use theology-speak all the time, or a number of technical words.  But I am speaking to communicate God’s message to people, not to speak what makes me feel good.

4.       Hang out with your audience
If we are going to know our audience, and so speak to them, we have to meet them, get to know them, ask them questions, listen to their stories.  If we only hang out with people who are like us, we will never be speaking to the people who are unlike us.  We have to go out of our comfort zone and spend time with people who listen to us who we might never spend time with.

Be encouraging
Sometimes we have to speak a hard or even harsh message from God.  That doesn’t mean that we need to speak to our people harshly.  If we have a hard message from God, recognize it is hard and try to say it in a way that can still be heard, standing with them, amazed that God would speak so roughly to us all. 

6.       Work from the learned to the unlearned
No one learns anything out of the blue.  Much of what we say will seem strange to people, (if we are speaking God’s word accurately).  We need to draw them in to understand new things with what they already know.  This is why I often begin a sermon with questions.  Not only does this invite people to participate in the subject at hand, but I can hear what they already understand about the subject.  Sometimes I can hear my whole sermon being briefly preached before I get to it, which is wonderful!  It also means that I can hear what others have to say, and lead them, step by step, to the message God has for them that day.

7.       Humor
Make an effort to be lighthearted at times.  Sometimes a message is so heavy, humor is inappropriate, but that’s pretty rare (or should be).  People can’t handle just straight speech for longer than five minutes.  Something has to be done to break it up, to lighten the load for a bit.  If people can laugh (or be amused), it makes the next thing they are presented easier to hear, no matter how deep it is.

8.       Repeat
Be sure to say your summary a number of times, both in different ways and in the same way.  We want to explain what we are going to say, say the message, illustrate the message, repeat the message, say why the message is important, say the message again… you get the idea.  It’s okay to repeat.  We are just emphasizing how important God’s message is.

In a sense, this is a summary of much of what I said before.  We all think in stories, react in stories and get emotional in stories.  As much as I love concepts, a story is often the package that we carry concepts with us.  How often has it been that we forgot what a sermon was “about” but remember a great story in the sermon.  Tell a story to tell your message.  You may thing that you aren’t any good at telling stories.   But I bet you tell a story to your spouse about something that happened to you that day.  The Bible is mostly story, and that’s one of the secrets of its popularity.  Use that strength.  Tell stories.

10.   Live your message
Don’t just tell a story, live the story.  Be your message.  People may not remember your words, but they will remember what you did, and tell it to others.  If you live the most important messages, then whatever your sermon was about, you’ve done your job.

11.   Ask for feedback
I’ve taken two classes on preaching in Bible school, and I don’t remember a thing from them.  I do remember preaching a number of sermons, though, and the feedback I received from these sermons helped me be a better preacher.   If there’s something others think we could do better in our preaching, they won’t say it unless we ask and act open to listening to what they have to say.  It’s hard not to be defensive about certain things, but it is best just to listen and let them speak.  After they are done we can evaluate ourselves and decide what we can do and what will improve our preaching.

12.   Practice
Like most skills, we learn by doing.  If you have people who want (or are willing) to listen to you, then just keep at it.  You will hone your skills and find your personal voice and speak God’s message in the best way you can.  The Holy Spirit will recognize your faithfulness and you’ll become what God’s needs.

Preaching is the act of speaking God’s message to God’s people.  Take it seriously.